We blew it

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is a non-fiction work by Peter Biskind exploring the rise to dominance of a new generation of directors in late 1960s and 1970s Hollywood, and of their ultimate failure as a movement in the early 1980s. It is a story of the rise of auteur theory as an influence on American filmmaking, of how the producers and studios came for a time to be pushed on to the back foot as power transferred to a new generation of directors and how ultimately that power transferred right back again.

It is also, essentially, an industry book. As such, it has much in common with books about banking or books about say the internet boom, much of it is who said what to whom, who backed whom and who fell out with whom. It is not a book to go to for an investigation of directorial technique, why this shot was chosen over that shot. Rather it is a book to read for an investigation of how movies were made, how the directors, actors, writers, producers and studio people came together and somehow ended up with a movie at the end of it.

In places, it is fascinating, if like me however you have no real interest in Hollywood gossip, it is also at times rather frustrating. At its best, when examining the relationship between the director and director of photography on The Godfather and how both contributed to the final product, it is genuinely illuminating:

The tension between Coppola and Willis proved creative. Coppola relied on his WP to frame the shots. Coppola’s strengths were writing dialogue, storytelling and working with actors, not visual composition. Willis achieved a unique look – rich earth colors, buttery yellows and browns – that would go down in cinema history.

At its worst, such as when telling us how Altman used to buy $2 blow-jobs in his lunch hour, Eay Riders is merely prurient. Large sections of the book are essentially anecdotes detailing terrible people doing terrible things to each other, the characters here make those in an Ellroy novel loveable by comparison.

Biskind’s thesis is essentially that with the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s, studios found themselves increasingly out of touch with their audiences. Established directors were in many cases old men, studio heads very much so, in order to gain a position of authority and respect one had to put in the years, prove one’s worth, this was a system that had worked well historically but that responded poorly to a sudden mass shift in popular culture. New blood was desparately needed.

“Everything seemed different after Easy Rider. The executives were anxious, frightened because they didn’t have the answers any longer. You couldn’t imitate or mimic quite as easily, churn them out like eggs from a chicken. Every day there was a new person being fired. If you watched where the furniture truck stopped, in front of some producer’s building, or some executive’s office, you knew before he knew that he was dead. My inexperience, lack of contacts and relationships were not handicaps. Because of my youth, people asked, ‘well, what do you think?'” [Peter Guber, Columbia executive]

The result, was an unprecedented transfer of power to a new generation of directors, a “New Hollywood”. Directors such as Altman, Ashby, Bodganovich, Coppola, Friedkin, Dennis Hopper, George Lucas, Rob Rafelson, Scorsese and Spielberg as well as writers such as Schrader and Robert Towne (both of whom also directed, with differing results) came into the ascendant. The studios did not understand these directors, they did not understand their work and often mishandled releases and marketing, but they did understand sales and the new directors got audiences.

The New Hollywood directors were, in the main, heavily influenced by French new wave cinema, by auteur theory, by the concept of the director as artist. Their goals were, therefore, artistic rather than commercial ones (excepting Lucas and Spielberg, of whom more later). They produced idiosyncratic films driven by the director’s personal vision, rather than by a concept of what a particular demographic might respond to.

Biskind starts his history with Hopper’s Easy Rider, a landmark film which studio executives found incomprehensible, but which spoke to the new audiences of the counterculture and which as noted in the quote above changed the landscape. He explores a variety of key films, The Godfather, Apocalpyse Now, much of Warren Beatty’s work (due to his power in this period), Mean Streets, Jaws and so on. Biskind also explores the lives of the various characters involved in these films, Hopper’s descent into a drug fuelled nightmare of paranoia, violence and ultimate irrelevance for example.

As the New Hollywood directors gained power, producers lost it. The result was increasingly that personal visions became unstuck from financial control, films became bloated behemoths that required massive editing. On many occasions negatives would be taken away from a director by guile or force so the studio could actually cut a releasable film, on others they would be hidden by the director so he could stop the studio interfering with his vision. Costs increased, budgets were increasingly ignored, directors came to operate filmsets as personal fiefdoms with few having any ability to gainsay them.

As the 1970s progressed, the outcome was a move from landmark films with an essentially smaller focus like Bonnie & Clyde, the Exorcist or Mean Streets, towards vast epics such as The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, finally resulting in Heaven’s Gate and the destruction of United Artists.

Simultaneously, the 1970s saw the arrival of cocaine, which became an essential staple for many directors, Scorsese (one of the few individuals in the book not to come across as utterly loathsome) at one point being checked into hospital because he had somehow destroyed all the platelets in his bloodstream. Cocaine exacerbated the effects of power, leading to increasingly grandiose projects and the New Hollywood losing touch just as the old Hollywood had.

Biskind charts the relationships of the New Hollywood elite, both business and sexual. This is a masculine world and the women in it (save influential critic Pauline Kael) are largely interchangeable, actresses who sleep with directors and then cheat on them with other directors or with their leading men. Women are sexually available, drugs are omnipresent, most individuals will happily betray friends if it helps them get their movies made. A huge part of the book is essentially gossip, well researched gossip (Biskind is scrupulous in providing his sources, refusing to speculate and noting when accounts of an incident differ) but gossip for all that. Affairs, rows, backroom deals, betrayed friendships, all of the viler aspects of human life are here.

While the auteurs began to coke themselves out of their talent, Spielberg released Jaws, and on Biskind’s thesis changed cinema. Two years later, Lucas (who here comes across as essentially talentless, but with good actors and crew) released Star Wars. Between the two, the studios recognised that more money could be made from big budget special-effects driven crowd pleasers than could from cleverly lit deconstructionist dramas with unhappy endings. Essentially, for Biskind, Spielberg and Lucas kill the movies, making it plainly more profitable to make popcorn accompaniments than to create art:

Jaws changed the business forever, as the studios discovered the value of wide breaks – the number of theaters would rise to one thousand, two thousand, and more by the next decade – and massive TV advertising, both of which increased the costs of marketing and distribution, diminishing the importance of print reviews, making it virtually impossible for a film to build slowly, finding its audience by dint of mere quality. As costs mounted, the willingness to take risks diminished proportionately. Moreover, Jaws whet corporate appetites for big profits quickly, which is to say, studios wanted every film to be Jaws.

And:

Increasingly films resembled comic books, were even based on comic books, like the Superman and Batman films to follow. This phenomenon was later dubbed “high concept,” and has been variously defined, but the most scandalous explication of the term has always been attributed to Spielberg. “If a person can tell me the idea in twenty-five words or less, it’s going to make a pretty good movie. I like ideas, especially movie ideas, that you can hold in your hand.” As the studios became stronger, the power shifted from the directors back to the executives, who were beginning to emerge from the shadow of auteurs to become celebrities in their own right. Whereas a key piece by Kit Carson in Esquire in the early ’70s focussed on directors, a similarly influential piece by Tony Schwartz that appeared in New York in the early ’80s focussed on the front office at Paramount.

By the end of the decade, Friedkin is releasing mediocrities having lost all touch with his talent, Bogdanovich has disappeared up his own ego, Coppola has never recovered from Apocalypse Now, Scorsese is being openly laughed at for his lack of commerciality, Spielberg and Lucas are very rich indeed. The studio system reasserts itself, focus groups and films aimed at demographics are in, the New Hollywood that arrived with such noise and that during its short stay in power created some genuinely great films is over, in the words of Wyatt in Easy Rider, “we blew it”.

For Biskind, film after the 1970s is a lesser beast, directors serve studios that in turn are driven by market research and segmentation, producers are businessmen who treat film like any other commercial product. Film ceases to be an art form, and becomes a business. Where once a film which failed on release might be given space to grow, the opening weekend gross is all that matters (a fact that has changed somewhat with the importance today of DVD sales, but that is beyond the scope of a book about the 1970s written back in 1998). The revolution is over.

It would be wonderful if Lucas’s fantasy of multiplexes all over America playing independent features were a fact. But he has probably not been to a mall lately, where the reality is that six screens of the local multiplex will be showing The Lost World or a Lost World equivalent. Unfortunately, this story may not have a happy ending, and the last word could likely be that of Altman, who says, “you get tired painting your pictures and going down to the street corner and selling them for a dollar. You get the occasional Fargo, but you’ve still got to make them for nothing, and you get nothing back. It’s disastrous for the film industry, disastrous for film art. I have no optimism whatsoever.”

At its best, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls charts with some conviction how the film industry adapted to the counterculture and how some great films came to be made. It also charts how that changed, and how the profoundly commercial and often even anti-artistic film industry we have today came about. For those elements, I can certainly recommend it. For the gossip, well, it didn’t interest me but if you do have an interest in film-insider gossip it’s primo stuff and you won’t go away disappointed. Biskind takes it rather as read that 1970s film was better than 1980s film, and he rather skews his case by only really looking at the great films of the 1970s, for all that I think there is some truth in his thesis. I think there was great work done, I think the current system doesn’t prevent great work being done again but does mitigate against it. Biskind shows how we got where we are, and along the way shows quite how messy filmmaking really is, I don’t know if I shall read more by him but he has interesting things to say and casts genuine light on the filmmaking process in the wider sense.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

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